Slowing down or just starting out?
Are you a runner or are you someone who runs? During the running boom of the 1970s, the question "are you a runner?" seemed to come up at almost every social gathering I attended. Now anyone who knows me well also knows that I don't attend many social gatherings. However, back then the question "are you a runner?" was almost as ubiquitous (and only a little less obnoxious) than "what's your sign?" It seemed nearly everyone was either a runner or a devout nonrunner. There was no middle ground.
Back then runners would spend hours discussing the newest training innovations (long slow distance vs. intervals) or the hottest shoes (Nike LDV anyone?). Their nonrunning friends, relatives and spouses would only roll their eyes because they had heard the exact same conversation 6,000 times. Back then you either were a runner and part of the running in-crowd or you were an unabashed nonrunner who wanted nothing to do with the activity. At times this chasm became a huge issue for people. Friendships were lost and marriages failed. For others running became the only thing that held their relationships together. Neither situation was particularly healthy.
My sense nowadays is that people are lot more tolerant and somewhat less zealous in their running pursuits. The training and equipment conversations still take place, but not to the exclusion of all else. Some of us who run might not classify ourselves as runners, tend to refer to our infrequent or slow running in self-deprecating terms. How often have you heard something to the effect of "I run, but I am not a real runner" or "I don't do marathons. I just run for exercise"?
As someone who has run for a long time, I feel confident reassuring these people that they most certainly are runners. I want them to embrace the idea. I want them to think of themselves as athletes.
What makes someone a runner? Is it the number of races they complete? Is it the length of their runs? Is it the speed they run at? While each of us may have a different answer to this question, I would contend that mindset is what makes someone a runner; the way in which an individual thinks of and sees themselves is the underlying factor in whether someone is a runner. The more a person begins to incorporate the runner into their self-image, the more likely it is they will begin to take on that role. Improved diet, improved health and improved daily function may all result from the way one views themselves.
But what of the runner who just can't do it anymore? As we get older, each of us must face the fact that age impacts what our bodies can handle. For the runner who once defined himself or herself by their racing prowess or their ability to run long or fast, the loss of physical capacity can be unnerving.
My guess is that many readers of this magazine are finding that they can no longer do what they once did. I firmly place myself in this nonselect group. The thought that I used to be able to race a marathon at a pace faster than I can currently sustain for 2.5 miles gets to me sometimes. However, redefining myself as a runner has become an acceptable and sustaining part of my life. It sure beats the alternative.
As older runners we all just need to reassess. Maybe we can't do what we used to, but how many new doors will open as we explore our options. Coaching, mentoring, race directing - alternative yet complementary activities are all out there as we continue to strive to be runners.
Part of the '70s runner/non-runner chasm resulted from the perception, accurate at times, that runners felt superior to nonrunners. Runners hung out with other runners and nonrunners wanted nothing to do with them. This was understandable. Who would want to spend time with someone who only talked about one thing and looked down on anyone who didn't do the same?
I feel that this gap has been bridged by the current running boom. Some of the builders of this bridge are those same runners from '70s who have now become fixtures in the older age groups. We may not be running as fast as we once did. Some of us may not be running at all. Yet there is room for everyone in the running community.
Each of us should take time to connect with other runners. The young and the swift can learn so much from those who have pursued this sport for decades. The elders can provide inspiration to those just starting out. Reach out and become a part of your running community. There is lot of room and many miles for everyone.
Good running to you.
Tom Kaufman, of Madison, Wisconsin, has run more than 50 marathons in as many years of running. He teaches high school phys ed and coaches high school track and cross country teams, as well as community and masters athletes. He has a master's degree in physical education and a specialization in exercise physiology.